Indian rivers “dying a slow death”

Environmentalists have said that most of India’s rivers, the main source of water and sacred for the majority of the population, are already dead, because millions of tons of industrial effluents and domestic wastes flow into them daily.

According to leading environmentalist, M C Mehta, among the nation’s 18 principal waterways, most “are already dead,” due to the dumping of untreated waste. “Stretches of all well-known rivers have died. Be it the Ganges that is no more in Kanpur or the Yamuna that vanishes as soon as it enters New Delhi,” Mehta, a former Supreme Court lawyer who has been campaigning for a clean Ganges since 1985, told The Times of India newspaper.

According to the green activist Iqbal Malik, “the ancient and pious rivers that were the essence of the country have become wastelands of floating carcasses, industrial and domestic wastes”, with the Yamuna, the main tributary of the subcontinent’s most important river, now “a drain”. Although the New Delhi administration has launched a clean-up operation for the Yamuna, which flows through the city, it has been dubbed a cosmetic job.

“Pictures of government officials picking up polythene bags from banks of Yamuna are gimmicks,” Malik said. “Why is the government starting activism instead of setting up sewage treatment plants and making sure that industrial units don’t come up near the river? By 2021, Delhi is going to be a desert because the Yamuna will vanish. Our policy makers must realise that the lifeline of any nation is its rivers and forests.”

According to the governmental Central Pollution Control Board, two billion litres of untreated sewage, including domestic and industrial discharges, flow into the Yamuna daily, virtually depleting oxygen in the river and making water unfit for drinking. Except during the monsoon, the only thing that flows into the river from the 17 major drains of New Delhi is sewage, the newspaper report says.

The Ganga, or Ganges, which runs through one of most densely populated areas in the world, home to nearly 400 million people, is also heavily polluted. As access to sewer and sanitation facilities in the river basin is so scarce, dozens of cites spew millions of gallons of untreated human and industrial waste into its sluggish waters. “Once you could see river dolphins in Ganga near Varanasi city, now even fish are few in number,” a spokesman for the Centre for Science and Environment said, adding that “all rivers in India are grossly over-exploited and heavily polluted.”

When the total cost of environmental degradation is considered, it more than offsets the positive economic growth of the past two decades, according to the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. Although the nation has stringent pollution controls, compliance is low due to little political will, outdated technologies, lack of capital and poor infrastructure, activists say.

One of India’s most dramatic environmental failures is said to be the Ganga Action Plan, which although launched in 1985 and costing six billion rupees ($13 million), has failed. A recent study found that the amount of sewage flowing into the Ganga has doubled since 1985, while a government audit found that funds meant for cleaning the river were being siphoned off.

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